Archive for the ‘crows and ravens’ Category

Super Bowl Sunday 2012 – For the Birds

February 7, 2012

Sandhill Cranes Scoring a Touchdown

When we first saw them, the Raven was negotiating with the Golden Eagle about the carcass of a Snow Goose upon which the eagle was perched. Too far away to be certain, we supposed that the raven was explaining to the eagle that contributions would be gratefully accepted. The eagle appeared disinterested.

That was the tail end of our annual Super Bowl Sunday birding trip and was one of the highlights. The juvenile Western Meadowlarks added spice and the Black Phoebe and Says Phoebes weren’t bad either. And we saw numbers of Northern Harrier Hawks at work even though it was a Sunday. Northern Harriers lack religion.

We missed, by two days and three miles, the latest Aplomado Falcon visit. But several Kestrels made up for that, hovering like the best of helicopters and swooping down faster than any helicopter. Two Towhees rearranged last autumn’s leaves, White-crowned Sparrows posed, and Snow Geese swirled for no apparent reason. Except for the time the Harrier glided into their territory. That caused political unrest.

Snowing Geese

And 8,400 trumpets in the orchestra of evolution trumpeted. Aldo Leopold was right about Sandhill Cranes. They played several concerts during our sunset/sunrise visits. They go to bed earlier than the Snow Geese and begin their morning commute after the geese. The geese are last in, first out and the Sandhills don’t care. Sandhills aren’t as excitable as Snow Geese and they worry less. If Sandhills are the trumpets of evolution, Snow Geese are the violins and are, accordingly, more high strung.

We wanted to show you a photo of that Raven and Golden Eagle discussion but, as we set up the shot, a cretin who works at the refuge careened into the field in his big white pick-up, scared the eagle and the Raven away and stole the goose carcass for himself, unceremoniously pitching it in the back of the pick-up, leaving us with only back-lit photos of the eagle and raven flying away and leaving both of them without lunch. A strong letter of protest to the refuge will be dispatched. If that man needed the goose for food, we’re not paying him enough; if he dislikes Golden Eagles, he ought to have a desk job. Either way, good manners required that he wait for me to make my photograph before scuttling the negotiations between the eagle and the raven.





Mirrors and Magpies

August 20, 2008

Not many beings on this planet can look in a mirror and realize they are seeing an image of themselves. Even humans need a few years before we figure it out. Orangutans, Chimpanzees and probably dolphins and elephants can do it but, until recently, that was about it as far as we knew. Even Border Collies, widely acknowledged as some of the smartest dogs, think that is an entirely different dog in the mirror. They try to herd it.

Now comes news that we at the top of the mammalian food chain aren’t the only ones who look in mirrors and see ourselves.

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpie with Yellow Sticker Affixed

Magpies are corvids, members of the same family as crows, ravens, jays and nutcrackers. That means they’re smart. So smart in fact that they spontaneously recognize mirror images of themselves — as mirror images of themselves.

How do we know this? We don’t speak Magpie and they don’t speak Human. So, scientists placed stickers on the bodies of Magpies in positions that the Magpies could only see in a mirror. When no mirror was present the Magpies did not notice the stickers. When a mirror was present , they removed the stickers from their bodies, without bothering to try to remove them from the mirror image first. They knew that was only a reflection and went after the real thing.

As the BBC puts it, the experiment was, “the first time self-recognition has been observed in a non-mammal.” (I have a prejudice against exclamation points, but it seems to me that sentence deserved one.)

We’ll have more to say about this experiment and its implications for our view of cortex-free intelligence and about social cooperation in other species in a subsequent post. In the meantime, you can read the report of the experiment and watch additional videos of the Magpies at work. Here is one of the videos from the experiment.


Thanks to the authors of the study, Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz,and Onur Güntürkün for sharing their report, photos, and videos with us laypeople.


April 9, 2008


The evidence continues to mount that calling someone a bird brain is not an insult. The BBC has this story about two Rooks — European and Asian members of the corvid family, as are jays, crows and ravens — and their problem solving capacity. In the experiment two Rooks quickly learned that they needed to simultaneously pull on two separate strings to move food into their cage. If they pulled only at one string or did not pull on both at the same time the string pulled loose and the food remained outside the cage. The birds learned this just as rapidly as did chimpanzees, those distant relatives of ours usually thought to be the brightest members of non-human species.

I am sorry to say that you have to click on this link to go to the BBC site to watch the video. It is possible that someone more web-savvy could have moved the video to this page but I haven’t had my second cup of coffee yet.

But you can listen to rooks. Rooks calling

But for other videos of Rooks, you’ll have to decamp from this blog and visit this site which someone smarter than I could probably have pasted on this page.

For all the other evidence we’ve accumulated at the Fat Finch you can click on our “Bird Brain” or the “Crows and Ravens” category over on the right of this page.

Other Birds

March 24, 2008

This article about recent discoveries of new planets outside our solar system raises the question: How many species of birds exist out there? Our life lists may seem paltry one day when it is necessary to travel to other planets to bird. What will their Hummingbirds look like?  What will their crows and ravens be able to do?

Crows and Ravens, Part VI

January 29, 2008

We unaccountably missed the December episode of “Nature” on PBS about Ravens. Attempting to remedy that mistake we went in search of video from the program and found this short excerpt from the program. Long time readers will know of our admiration for the intelligence of Corvids which increased after watching this Raven contest a Bald Eagle for an avian snack and then go fishing.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part IV – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

Nature’s Intelligence or The Nature of Intelligence

December 15, 2007


75-mile-juniper-2.jpgThe juniper tree in the photo lives at the top of 75 Mile Ridge in the Grand Canyon. I have no idea how long it has lived there or how long it will continue living but I suspect it is in its middle age. Perhaps it is a hundred years old with perhaps another century to go. Two hundred years to watch the Grand Canyon. Not too bad a life. I spent a night with it last month and remembered a poet who thought it might be nice sometime to be a tree, “looking out in all directions at once.”

We’ve talked here before about avian intelligence. Ornithology is just one science beginning to learn that our definition of “intelligence” has been too limited.

We humans often divide organisms into three categories: Those which are inanimate, those which are sentient, and those which are also sapient. Sentient beings can feel; sapient beings are also self-aware and capable of judgment. Eastern religions don’t make the distinction, at least not as clearly. Most recognize many non-human sentient beings and many include “sapient” within the category of “sentient.” That is why a Mahayana Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened being devoted to the liberation of others, vows to free all the numberless sentient beings which exist, not just the human ones.

Crows and Ravens use tools, hide their food caches and feel pain. Obviously they are sentient. Are they also sapient? Aware that another Raven is watching, a Raven will pretend to cache food at one spot but then hide the food somewhere else when it is not observed. Doesn’t that imply self-awareness and even judgment? A New Caledonian Crow with an ability to make tools to reach grubs was once put in a cage with another crow which never demonstrated the slightest ability to make a tool. It just waited for the tool-using crow to get a grub and then stole the grub. Single cell organisms “learn” to avoid unpleasant stimuli. Aspen trees “learned” to clone themselves to avoid the vicissitudes of sexual reproduction. Doesn’t that evolutionary decision imply sapience?

It is safe to assume that juniper tree at the top of 75 Mile Ridge is at least sentient. What if it is also sapient in some way we don’t yet comprehend? It may not be that much of a stretch into anthropomorphism to imagine that it is. That at some level it knows where it lives; knows what it is. Is it aware of a bird when the bird sits in it? It is envious of the bird’s ability to fly? Does it ever wonder where the humans who walk by it go? Would it like to hike along sometime and go experience what is up there two thousand feet higher at the South Rim of its home?”

It can’t, of course. Even if it is sapient, it is still a tree. Whatever consciousness it possesses is cabined and confined by its essential nature and its history in the Grand Canyon. It is not free to get up and move. It cannot be something other than what it is. It is not free to re-create itself from scratch. About all it can do is rearrange a branch here or there, drop some needles or change the direction one of its roots is growing.

Pretty much like us; which may be the reason we humans have had such a limited idea of intelligence. The whales, dolphins, orangutans, Chimpanzees, the crows. the ravens, even the trees may know more than we’ve given them credit for.


Gahan Wilson also speculated recently — in a manner only he can do — about the nature of plant intelligence. Here is the result of his speculations as published in the New Yorker’s issue of November 26th, 2007.071126_cartoonwilson_1_a12920_p465.jpg

Crows and Ravens, Part V – Fictional Birds, Part II

December 10, 2007

Our posts here about crows and ravens are our most popular and another is on the way. Our incipient series about fictional birds is also popular. Obviously it is time to wed the two and today we do that; calling on the services of the late Vincent Price.

New Caledonian Crows Again

October 4, 2007

The New Caldonia Crows are at again. So are the scientists who study them. Now the scientists have affixed tiny lightweight cameras to the tails of some of the crows. The scientists, not fully trusting what the crows do in captivity, wanted to watch their behavior in the wild. So they fitted 18 crows with 5 ounce cameras attached to their tails and let them return to the mountains of New Caldonia. The crows surprised the scientists again, using more than just sticks to get at protein rich grubs under the ground. You can watch some of the videos here which is today’s BBC story. The videos aren’t of the greatest quality but you’ll get the idea. Our favorite is the ground’s eye view of a takeoff and flight with a stick in the crow’s mouth. But you’ll also see crows hunting with sticks, hitting with sticks, hopping from branch to branch and eating a snail.

Crows and Ravens, Breaking News

August 16, 2007

The New Caledonian Crows are at it again. This time they quickly figured out how to use a short stick which was too short to reach a piece of food to reach a long stick which was long enough to reach the food. They used not one tool but two. And usually on the first try. This, according to scientists, was reasoning of a type that we’ve always believed only humans and great apes could accomplish.

The article is at the BBC web site here and has a video of a Crow getting the food.

For our earlier posts in the Crows and Ravens series, look here and here and here and here.

Crows and Ravens, Part IV

July 23, 2007

We now know that Crows and Ravens are smart. Now, let us assume that you are confronted with a large black bird. It looks smart. It can identify you, can you identify it? How do you figure out whether it is a Crow or a Raven? Just follow the steps we list here and you’ll identify it successfully. (This post is based on the discussion in an excellent book, Identify Yourself: The 50 Most Common Birding Identification Challenges, by Bill Thompson, III and the editors of Bird Watchers Digest. We’ll be adding it to the book section soon but don’t wait for us. Buy yourself a copy. Where, you ask? Well, we do sell it but it is also at your local independent book seller’s.)

Step One: Where are you?

Range maps are the first clue. American Crows are found from the tree line in Northern Canada all the way south to Mexico. They are; however, absent from the high Sierra Nevada, West Texas and the lowlands of the Southwest.


Fish crows are found only in the American Southeast. Northwestern crows are confined to the Pacific Coast from Northern Washington to Southern Alaska.

Common Ravens are found just about everywhere American Crows are found except for the north central U.S. and the Great Plains. (So, if you are in the Great Plains, that large black bird is almost certainly an American Crow.)


Chihuahuan ravens are found only in the desert southwest and, occasionally in southeast Colorado to southwest Nebraska.

Chihuahuan Raven Range Map

Step Two: Decide if it is a crow or a raven.

A. If the bird is flying:

1. Ravens soar; crows, hardly ever.
2. Ravens have distinct wedge shaped tails. Crows’ tails are squared off at the rear.
3. Ravens flap more slowly and less often. They glide and soar. Crows flap constantly and steadily.

B. If the bird is sitting:

1. Ravens are – usually – larger, as much as twice.
2. Ravens have thicker bills.
3. Ravens have shaggy throat feathers, crows don’t.

C. If the bird is talking:

1. Crows have clear voices and give loud, clear “caw” notes, often in a series. Listen here.

2. Ravens have deep, hoarse voices and “kraaack” or “croak” or “gronk”. Think Edgar Allan Poe or Grip in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge. Listen here.

Step Three: If it is a raven, decide which kind.


This is a problem only in the desert southwest since it is the only place Chihuahuan and Common Ravens overlap.

Have the bird sit absolutely still so you can walk up to it and examine the base of its neck feathers. If the base of the feathers is white, it is a Chihuahuan Raven. If it is dirty gray, it is a common raven. Speak Spanish to the former, English to the latter.

There is no other way to tell for sure which is which. You can guess though. Chihuahuan’s prefer open grassland and scrub desert lowlands and commons prefer higher elevations and wooded habitats. Chihuahuans hang out together more than Commons, at least in the winter.

Step Four: If it is a Crow, decide which kind.


This will be a problem only if you are in the Southeast United States or the Pacific Coast. If you are in one of those two places you now must decide what kind of crow it is.

Forget it. It’s impossible. Just stay away from those places and you will never have to deal with it. But, if you do find yourself on a beach in British Colombia, assume it is a Northwestern Crow and add it to your life list. But. if you are more than 500 yards inland, assume it is an American Crow.

Step Five: If you really can’t decide.

If you still don’t know and there are people waiting for you to tell them, announce loudly and confidently that it is whichever one you want it to be. No one will ever be able to prove you wrong. Only that big black bird will know.


Update: We’ve added a category for “Crows and Ravens.” You can find other posts in the series by clicking on that category on the right side of the home page or you can follow these links which will open in a new window.

Crows and Ravens:

Part I – Here.

Part II – Here.

Part III – Here.

Part V – Here.

Part VI – Here.

Crows and Ravens – New Caledonian Crows -Breaking News – Here.

New Caledonian Crows Again – Here.

The Nature of Intelligence – Here.

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